As Teary Britain Bids Adieu, A Happy China Celebrates

Drama in Hong Kong during handover will play out for some time under China rule

This glittering city was yesterday transformed into the world's largest stage. But the drama that began as Britain handed over the scepters of rule to China is unlikely to end in this century.

For while Britain shuffled off the stage as the clocks struck midnight, China had just begun directing the opening act of Hong Kong's future under a new ruler.

"China will protect the special freedoms of Hong Kong," promised President Jiang Zemin minutes after the handover.

The normally frantic, money-go-round of life in the city of commerce big and small was slowed to a crawl by the five-day holiday surrounding the handover at midnight. Across Hong Kong, as Britain's trappings of power were stripped away, red-and-yellow banners symbolizing the new sovereign lined roadways.

Multihued paper dragons, more than 30-feet long, danced through major thoroughfares, and other images from Chinese folklore were painted across the city's skyline in elaborate light displays.

At Britain's open-air sunset farewell ceremony in the pouring rain, an emotional Gov. Chris Patten paid tribute to the colony. "I have no doubt that ... Hong Kong's star will continue to climb," he said. The event culminated with a British fireworks over Victoria Harbor.

And across the city, thousands of police set up barriers to regulate the crowds that surged through the streets.

Inside the convention center where the handover ceremony took place, a People's Liberation Army band marked the instant of Hong Kong's return by playing the "March of the Volunteers," the Communist Party symphony that is China's national anthem.

In what may have been a portent of Hong Kong's destiny under Chinese rule, one of the small ships that moved through Victoria Harbor carried protest banners while a police patrol speedboat trailed behind.

The question on many minds, from the 4,000 statesmen invited to the handover pageant to the millions who lined the streets of the city to the world-wide TV audience, is probably identical: How will the drama play out?

"The handover ceremony might be the most widely watched show of the decade, but few can predict with any certainty what will happen after the pageantry is over," said a Chinese intellectual with high-level government contacts. The people of Hong Kong seemed determined to dispel any ominous portents by firing countless rounds of fireworks back into the sky and by offering fruit and incense on small altars throughout the city to appease the Chinese gods.

Inside China, the handover is being hailed as the start of a new era for Chinese civilization, and many of the country's 1.3 billion citizens are likely to have fervently celebrated the event. Seven hours of handover celebrations in Tiananmen Square were broadcast live on state-run TV to all corners of Chinese territory.

The square was transformed into a huge festival ground,as tens of thousands of carefully selected players joined in heralding the "event of the century."

Here in Hong Kong, where the celebrations were not as well scripted, the mood was more wide-ranging and ambivalent.

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